Toddlerhood is one of our favorite stages of development. We love toddlers! It’s fascinating to watch little ones discover and explore the world in their unique way. Few adults can remember being a toddler. We remember being 4 or 5 years old when we had pretty good language skills, had the basic principles of the world figured out and could follow the rules and shared most of the time. Adults often expect that same understanding from toddlers. Toddlers have very unique developmental characteristics and thinking strategies that influence their behavior. Perhaps that’s why many parents are baffled, frustrated and even shocked by their toddler’s behavior.
WHAT IS A TODDLER?
A toddler is a walking child between about 14 and 30 months of age. Toddlers are often separated into two categories: young toddlers and 2 year olds. A more creative definition can be found in this quote: “A baby is an angel whose wings grow smaller as its legs grow longer…then we call it a toddler.” In other words, as he or she becomes more mobile, a baby may lose that angelic nature and turn into a less than angelic toddler.
WHAT ARE TODDLERS WORKING TO ACCOMPLISH?
Toddlers are storing information.
The first three years of life are critically important for brain development. The more the brain is stimulated, the more it will develop connections needed for future learning. Areas of the brain that aren’t used will die off. That’s why toddlers go everywhere, touch everything and seem to have an insatiable curiosity.
Toddlers are experimenting with and testing the environment.
A toddler’s job is to “wreck the world,” or so it seems! The world is new to a toddler. He or she is like a scientist, developing hypotheses and testing them out, sometimes destructively and often without much understanding of safety. Toddlers learn by trial and error, so they constantly manipulate the environment in order to figure things out. Toddlers dump dirt out of plant pots, throw things, drop food on the floor, hit the dog, turn the lights on and off, stick things in outlets, eat rocks, jump off the couch…you get the picture. Toddlers must test everything out, sometimes many times, before it’s permanently stored in their brains. Later, in the preschool years, your child will retrieve this stored information and use it to organize and order the world.
Toddlers are individuating — realizing that they are separate people from their parents and caregivers.
Infants don’t understand where they end and where you start. They’re born without much control over their bodies, needs and wants. As toddlers, they begin developing a sense of self. When they run away from you and then stop to look back in apparent delight, or climb to the top of the slide and look down at you defiantly, their bodies seem to scream, “I am ME! I am not YOU!” They realize they have power to make choices, make their bodies move and say “NO.”
Toddlers are learning to control their bodies.
Toddlers are on their feet, ready to take on the world in an upright position. They climb and use their arm muscles to throw things. Soon, they’ll learn to jump, kick a ball, walk backward and many other large motor skills. And boy do they want to practice! Their energy seems limitless as they work to perfect these skills. Small motor skills will also be perfected by doing things, like taking off and putting on clothing (often at inappropriate times), using eating utensils and scribbling. Another part of body control will be toilet training.
Toddlers are learning to control social relationships.
Toddlers have little understanding of other people’s feelings and they don’t have words to describe their own feelings yet. It shouldn’t surprise us that they try to control people by hitting, biting, pinching, yelling or not sharing.
If I want it, it’s mine
If I like it, it’s mine
If you have it, it’s mine
If I can take it away from you, it’s mine
If I had it yesterday, it’s mine
If it looks like mine, it’s mine
Self-control, waiting, sharing and taking turns will develop gradually over time.
Whew! We are worn out just THINKING about toddlers. In our next blog, we’ll share information about the specific characteristics of toddler development as well as suggestions for guidance and discipline. We hope this blog series will help you better understand your terrific toddler so you can enjoy this fascinating stage of development.